The 2010 Census and the race question

I received my 2010 Census yesterday and decided to fill it out right away before it got lost in the basketful of junk mail.

I was stumped immediately on Question #1 regarding how many people live in the home. I had not intended to count Suegra… but the Census clearly states that you should count anyone under your roof on the date of April 1st, 2010, even if you don’t consider them a permanent family member.

So, even though we are a family of 4, I had to write a number 5 in that box. There it is…

Well, it turned out that this question was pan comido compared to the race questions.

Question #5 asks Hispanic origin. According to the Census, “Hispanic” and “Latino” are not considered a race – they are an ethnicity, since Latinos can be of different races, (take for instance, Sammy Sosa, George Lopez, Bolivian President Evo Morales, and Enrique Iglesias. They are all Latino but they are all different racially – and that is just a very small taste of the variety found in Latin America.)

Yet, aren’t Anglos just as racially diverse? I am part Russian, Irish, Austrian and a number of other things. My neighbor could be French and Danish, yet we are both thrown into the “White” category.

I’m always baffled as to why Latinos are singled out. Nevertheless, this was an easy enough question to answer on the Census. I marked “No” for myself and “Yes” for my husband, our children and Suegra, (writing in “Salvadoran” to specify in the provided boxes.)

Question #6 was the real problem. This one is asking about Race. If my husband, Suegra and children can’t identify as “Latino” (half “Latino” in my kids case), what are they?

The options are:

Black, African Am., or Negro
American Indian or Alaska Native (with space to fill in the tribe.)
Asian Indian
Native Hawaiian
Guamanian or Chamorro
Other Pacific Islander (such as Fijan or Tongan, etc. with a box to fill in which one)
Other Asian (Pakistani, Hmong, Thai, etc. with a box to fill in which one)
Some Other Race (and a box to fill in which one)

For myself I marked “White”, but I was baffled as to what to do for everyone else in the family. Racially they are “ladino” (mestizo), which in El Salvador means an Indigenous person mixed with Spanish blood who has adopted the Spanish language and culture, (mostly leaving behind the Indigenous language and culture.)

The problem is, my husband’s family doesn’t know where their Indigenous roots come from. Are they Pipil? Lenca? Aztec? Mayan? They have no idea. I’m sure this is the case with many people from Latin America. With the way the Spaniards arrived and began converting everyone to Catholicism, forcing them to speak Spanish and adopt European ways, (not to mention massacring the uncooperative among them) – it became a shameful, or even dangerous thing to be Indigenous. It is a similar history to the way the Native Americans were treated here in the United States. Even in modern day Latin America, if a person acts in a uncouth manner, they are called a stupid “Indio” as an insult. And so, one’s indigenous roots is not something most families would have wanted to keep records of. Perhaps they considered it something best forgotten, and so now generations later, it has been.

So here I am with this Census, wondering how I am supposed to fill it out. I decided to search the internet to see if anyone else was struggling with this problem and found this article. Apparently I am not the only one scratching my head.

“El Paso – Anthropologists and Latino residents of El Paso have called into question recent statements made by a social activist that advise Hispanics to register their race as “white” when it comes time to fill out the census form this month.

Speaking to the El Paso Times this past week, Jessie Acosta, chairman of the El Paso Complete Count Committee, estimated that 98 percent of the Hispanics living in El Paso are technically white. His comments have generated much controversy and confusion in the community.

Academics and citizens agree that census officials have committed a “racial inaccuracy” by not offering Hispanics the opportunity to register themselves as “mixed,” given that the vast majority of Latinos are of mixed descent, with Spanish and indigenous American ancestors.

Margarita Rendón, a Mexican woman living in El Paso who regards herself as trigueña [a lighter-skinned Latina], stated that there exists enormous confusion over the race sections on these types of questionnaires. She stated that she is neither black nor white, and for this reason she always marks the box labeled “Other” to answer these questions.

“I always thought that the gringos were the white ones,” she said, a bit confused.”

-Héctor Manuel Castro – El Diario de El Paso
March 10, 2010

I think it’s laughable that the Census wants Latinos to mark “White”. Since when do they get to be included in the exclusive club? I’ll mark my husband as “White” when he gets treated as “White”.

Besides, how many Black people have just as much “White” blood as the majority of “Latinos”, yet they are expected to select “Black”.

I wrestled with how to fill out this Census for over an hour, and then I finally decided I would just mark “White” AND “Other”, not just for my kids, but for my husband and Suegra, too. In the “Other” box, I wrote “Latino”, but also considered “Mestizo”, “Ladino”, “Indigenous”, and any number of Central American tribes. I wrote it in pencil just in case I change my mind. I’m wondering how other Latinos across the country are answering this question. Please leave a comment!


  1. I filled mine out this morning and ran into the same problem! I finally decided to write “mixed race-biracial” That’s how I describe myself and while I am a light-skinned Latina (dad is white and mom’s Mexican family is very light) I still do not feel comfortable only checking white as my race. People still come up to me and say “what are you?” and to me that means I am not considered “white.”

    I like how you answered it. That probably address the problem a little more head on.

    • @ Grace – Thanks for sharing your experience filling out the Census and other such forms. I’m hoping others will weigh in and share. I’m predicting the answers will be as diverse as the people!

  2. YIKES!

    I have always been kind of sheepish about putting WHITE on everything. Just because it is such a broad and discriminating thing unto itself.

    I have actually been turned down for jobs because I wasn’t a “visible minority” even though I was perfectly qualified and happy with the pay offered… but the employer got a grant if the hired person was a minority. So I was SOL (and I needed a job desperately too).

    Up here the “indigenous” people get all sorts of special treatment. And it has built of some nasty resentment from anyone (of any colour) that has worked hard to be a proud tax paying Canadian citizen. And you only need to prove that you are about 1/16 th native to receive these fantastic educational, tax and resource exploiting opportunities. Oh the money that has been dumped into trying to fix the wrongdoings of those first colonists (and my family was still in Europe back then so don’t blame me).

    But I digress, your census dilemma is not an enviable one (especially with the MIL taking up space in your house).

  3. ugh, I am sorry, I regret the implied racial slur in that last comment. I am ashamed that the FN people were treated so badly from the start, I am just really wishing we could ALL be treated as EQUALS, right across the board one day (no matter what past our blood may have). That’s all I really want for Canada, and the rest of the World.

    Being adopted would almost be easier.
    Religion: UNKNOWN
    Genetic Conditions: UNKNOWN
    Ethnicity: UNKNOWN

    Treat me like EVERYBODY, because I could be ANYBODY.

    • @ Pol – I understood completely what you meant. I know you don’t have a hateful bone in your body.

      I think everyone being treated as equals would be ideal but I can see both sides of the argument. (I usually can, which is a blessing and a curse. Makes me very indecisive!)

      I agree completely with you that all should be given the exact same benefits and opportunities. I can’t imagine the frustration of being turned down for a job you are qualified for, (and that you NEED!), just because you aren’t a minority. (Affirmative Action is what we call something similar here, and it’s controversial.)

      But I also see how the First Nations people would feel they’re owed something. I don’t know a good solution.

      Anyway – I understand what you’re saying.

  4. I was actually searching for people who were having this same problem as me. I, too, have no clue what to put for my families racial status. We are form Guatemala and would consider ourselves as Mestizo, I guess. (I am lighter skinned, my mom is of a darker hue, and my dad also “light”)
    I don’t think it is ethical for the Census to ask Latinos/Hispanics to classify ourselves into races considering our history of racial discrimination against “Indios.” This census made me think about race for the first time in many years and I would not like for Latinos of any race to start identifying more with race than with our cultural similarities. (Or for all Americans to think in terms of race even more than normal.)

    I will just be putting “OTHER” and mestizo because I really am a mixture of different cultures.

    Thanks for the article!

  5. Thank you, you hit the nail in the head. I always struggle with that question every time it is asked of me. I am Latina and as such mixed Native with Spaniard. I do not consider myself neither Black, White and definately not Native (as you expressed it in your article)yet I have to choose one. So my own, personal struggle against this divisive system has been to answer how I feel most comfortable, as such I have made it a point to always check OTHER as my answer even when it is not available and as the explanation of it I add my race… HUMAN.

  6. Recently, I found the 2010 Census form hanging on my door. As I began filling it out, I came across a dilemma. The U.S. government wants to know if my children are adopted or not and it wants to know what our races are. Being adopted myself, I had to put “Other” and “Don’t Know Adopted” for my race and “Other” and “Don’t Know” for my kids’ races.

    Can you imagine not knowing your ethnicity, your race? Now imagine walking into a vital records office and asking the clerk for your original birth certificate only to be told “No, you can’t have it, it’s sealed.”

    How about being presented with a “family history form” to fill out at every single doctor’s office visit and having to put “N/A Adopted” where life saving information should be?

    Imagine being asked what your nationality is and having to respond with “I don’t know”.

    It is time that the archaic practice of sealing and altering birth certificates of adopted persons stops.

    Adoption is a 5 billion dollar, unregulated industry that profits from the sale and redistribution of children. It turns children into chattel who are re-labeled and sold as “blank slates”.

    Genealogy, a modern-day fascination, cannot be enjoyed by adopted persons with sealed identities. Family trees are exclusive to the non-adopted persons in our society.

    If adoption is truly to return to what is best for a child, then the rights of children to their biological identities should NEVER be violated. Every single judge that finalizes an adoption and orders a child’s birth certificate to be sealed should be ashamed of him/herself.

  7. Thank you for the blog post. I just finished filling out the census myself and wondered, wtf do Latinos do with this thing?

    I think there should be two questions: 1) With what racial/ethnic group do you most identify? and 2) What ethnic group do you think most people perceive you to be?

    My answer to 1 would be “mixed”; my answer to 2 would be “white.”

    What a rich source of info the census could be. . . .

  8. I am having such a hard time with this question and to make matters worst I feel like my other Latino friends don’t. Luckily my husband who is puertorican (light skin) told me just now, I have a problem with you checking “white” as my race. I am a little darker. I think it is unfair for the Census to ask Latino for the color of their skin when they don’t ask Black people. I know at least two Black people who are very very light skin (pale in fact) but they are Black and nobody questions this on the Census – why because they aren’t sitting in front of them. If they were they would ask them why are you checking “black”? So how can they ask me to check “black” when half of the time people don’t even know what I am. I think for the next Census in 10 years the government will have to amend that question.
    P.S. THANK YOU THANK YOU SO MUCH for this blog. I was starting to feel alone struggling with this issue.

    • @ MCBLOPEZ – Hey, you are so welcome. Don’t worry – you’re not alone on being frustrated with this Census question. I ran into quite a few people expressing the same thoughts/feelings/confusion. The important thing is to fill it out as best you can and send it back. Latinos need to make sure they’re counted so that politicians and others pay proper attention to the growing community and its needs.

      I agree that the way this question is asked will need to be discussed and changed on future Census forms though.

      Thanks so much for leaving a comment.

  9. I’ve been wondering what the government does with this ‘race’ and ethnicity data that they collect. One thing they do is make housing maps that show the massive housing segregation that still exists. You can find the maps if you google “mapping the 2010 U.S. census”. Click the drop down on the left and select “Racial/ethnic distribution”. I guess this is useful information – as long as a xenophobic racist doesn’t get their hands on it and decide to attack communities that they don’t like. Japanese were rounded up in California during WWII and Germans knew where all the Jews lived and rounded them up with data like this.

  10. The only ‘racial’ categories on the 1850 census, after the Mexican American war, where ‘white’, ‘black’ and ‘mulatto’. Since Jim Crow segregation was still in effect and non-whites were not allowed to become citizens, the agreement was that Mexicans would be labeled ‘white’ so that they could become citizens and not be segregated the way African Americans were. “Legal History of the Color Line” (free to read on Google Books) details how the ethnic/race/color labels have changed throughout U.S. history.

  11. If your husband was mestizo I would have checked white and native American and then put Spanish Indian under what native American group. As a census worker that is exactly what I did for a few Hispanic people. Some I marked only white or only black or both depending on what they told me.
    Spanish Americans were white people so most all Latinos are at least part white and many times it’s even the majority since so many native Americans died due to the diseases and killing that they endured. But if you know you had Native Americans people and it was enough to make a substantial difference in ethnicity and appearance (unlike most white Americans with native American ancestors) I’d check it to and consider yourself a multiracial Hispanic. If you know your ancestors were black and that took part in your ethnicity and appearance mark black and possibly white and native too.

    • Regina – thanks for the tips, although it’s obviously much too late for any of us to change what we put on this past Census.

      I don’t personally agree with using the term “Spanish Indian” … The native people of Latin America were very diverse, and those that learned to speak Spanish, only learned because of the white Spaniards that came from Spain… So saying “Spanish Indian” really isn’t a good identifier.

      Also, choosing which races someone is based on how they look is another thing I’d disagree with. My husband and I have 2 sons together. One looks stereotypically Latino and one looks stereotypically white. Both boys have the same exact blood but if I labeled them based on how they look I would be taking away half their roots from each of them.

      All this confusion is evidence to me that we need to do away with the race labels. If you think about it, all of us are multi-racial, even those of us who don’t look like it.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • I agree with doing away with the ‘race’ and ethnicity labels on the census. For the No Child Left Behind law, I’m still up in the air. I have a strong feeling we should measure performance by zip code instead of by ‘race’. However, because schools now have ‘race’ data, scholars have found serious discrimination occurring (suspending ‘Black’ and ‘Hispanic’ kids more than ‘White’ and ‘Asian’ kids for the same minor infractions). I also think parents should have the right to refuse to state their ‘race’ on their children’s birth certificate.

  12. No solution yet. It’s 2017 and a request to fill out the new census online has arrived. The choices are still the same. I found this blog while looking for how to fill in the race of my adopted Salvadoran daughter. My husband & I are both white. Right now I’m leaning toward mestizo, based on this blog, though she looks like she may be white (Spanish), black, & indigenous, we have no way of knowing for sure. Thanks for this discussion.

  13. There is a reason white is the only option
    for Caucasians. Unity of whites.

    To make things right we indigenous people
    should have one box that says indigenous to only the Americas. That includes only us natives with the 9 repeat allele DNA variant.

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